Arkansas’ COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a new high for the second day in a row on Tuesday as a surge in coronavirus cases continued to overwhelm the state’s health system.
The state Department of Health reported its virus hospitalizations rose by 59 to 1,435. A day earlier, the state broke the record it set in January for total COVID-19 hospitalizations. The department said there are only 12 intensive care unit beds available in the state.
“Everybody has to realize, this is not a good time to get sick because space is limited,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at his weekly news conference.
There are 507 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units around the state and 295 on ventilators.
Arkansas’ latest surge has been brought on by the extra-contagious delta variant and the state’s low vaccination rate. Arkansas ranks third in the country for new virus cases per capita, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers.
The state’s coronavirus cases rose by more than 2,600 and COVID-19 deaths increased by 24.
Hutchinson said the state is working with the state hospital association to free up space and noted that lawmakers approved a plan to use $129 million in federal virus relief funds to aid hospitals. The governor said the state is also looking at suggestions from a federal “surge response team” on ways to open hospital space.
COVIDComm, the state’s system for matching COVID-19 patients with hospitals, earlier Tuesday said only one hospital among the 42 in its system had ICU capacity for virus patients. COVIDComm Program Manager Jeff Tabor said the latest surge is worse than over the winter.
“It’s just worse because we don’t get the sense that it’s letting up,” Tabor said. “In the winter, the feeling was it ebbed and flowed. We’re just in a constant ebb.”
The surge has been straining the state’s health care workers. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson described how they’ve had some nurses walk off in the middle of their shifts because they can’t take it anymore.
“One of the challenges we have is this is now an avoidable problem and it’s difficult to come into work and to deal with these challenges when you know that there was an antidote to this, the vaccine, that people have chosen not to take,” Patterson said in an interview on National Public Radio. “And it’s difficult not to become angry.”
In one effort to boost vaccinations, Hutchinson said the state is increasing its Medicaid reimbursement rate to physicians for COVID-19 vaccinations from $40 to $100. Only about 27,000 of the state’s 627,000 traditional Medicaid recipients have been vaccinated.
“We have to do better for this vulnerable population,” he said. Hutchinson said the state is encouraging providers to reach out to Medicaid patients about vaccinations and answer questions they may have.
Hutchinson rejected calls to delay the statewide start of school, which is set for next week, because of the surge in cases. The governor said the state is purchasing “high efficiency filtration” masks to make available for schools by the time or shortly after classes begin.
Several school districts and public charter schools have said they’re requiring masks after a judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state’s law banning mask mandates. The majority-Republican Legislature last week rejected Hutchinson’s call to roll back the law for some schools.
Hutchinson, a Republican, has said he regretted signing the law in April and agrees with the judge’s decision. He said Tuesday that he’s hired a separate attorney to represent him in the case.